By Eric Durr, New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs March 14, 2014
NEW YORK (March 14, 2014) -- The New York National Guard's 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry leads New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade for the 163rd time, Monday.
The 69th Infantry, famous as the "Fighting 69th" from the Civil War's Irish Regiment, has led the parade -- considered the world's largest St. Patrick's Day parade -- every year since 1851.
The Soldiers of the battalion will be joined by the New York Army National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division Band as well as by Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, the Adjutant General of New York, and other key leaders of the New York National Guard. More than 700 New York National Guard members are expected to participate in the parade.
Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, is expected to join the battalion's Soldiers during this year's march along with U.S. Rep. Peter King.
The 69th Infantry's association with the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade began in 1851. The city has held the parade for more than 250 years, beginning in 1761.
New York City's Irish Catholic population was rapidly increasing, but so-called "Native American" groups opposed the Irish presence and were not above using violence to break up Irish events.
To protect the marchers, a New York State Militia regiment composed mainly of Irishmen, the ancestor of the 69th, volunteered to march at the front of the group to protect the parade.
Since then, there has always been a 69th Regimental presence in the parade. During World Wars I and II, which the 69th served in Europe and the Pacific respectively, and again during Operation Iraqi Freedom, members of the unit's Veterans Corps marched in the parade in place of the serving National Guard Soldiers.
A host of traditions surround the 69th and the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
The members of the 69th place a sprig of boxwood on their uniform as a reminder of the regiment's charge against Confederate lines at Mayre's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg, on Dec. 13, 1862. To mark their Irish Heritage, the men of the Irish Brigade, including the 69th Regiment, put sprigs of boxwood in their hatbands.
The Union attack failed, but the burial details found that the Union troops who made it closest to the enemy fortifications before being killed had sprigs of boxwood in their hats.
It was their ferocity at Fredericksburg that led to their nickname, coined by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, "the Fighting 69th."
The boxwood sprigs the men place in the Velcro of their Army Combat Uniform pockets today comes from Fredericksburg each year.
Officers of the 69th also carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood imported from Ireland. The sticks, much like a British officer's swagger stick, are considered the mark of an Irish leader and gentleman.
The Soldiers are accompanied on their march by two Irish Wolfhounds, the official mascot of the 69th Infantry. For the last 24 years, the dogs have been provided by Irish Wolfhound breeder Eileen Flanagan.
For the officers of the 69th, the day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a toast of Irish whiskey in the commander's office of the Lexington Avenue Armory, a room lined with 69th relics dating back to the Civil War. The traditions of the boxwood and the blackthorn sticks are explained to the new officers, along with a look at the "Kilmer Crucifix."
The religious icon was once worn by poet Joyce Kilmer -- the author of the poem "Trees" -- who died while serving in the 69th in World War I. Today it is handed down from battalion commander to battalion commander and carried in the parade.
At 6:30 a.m., the regiment's honorary bagpiper Joe Brady leads the men out of the Lexington Avenue and over to 51st Street for a special Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
The Soldiers occupy the southern half of the church as the place of honor. The battalion commander traditionally joins the Adjutant General of New York, the Governor of New York and Mayor of New York City in a front pew for the service and the blessing for the regiment's Soldiers.
Following mass the battalion marches to 44th Street and 5th Avenue, the official start of the parade.
When the 11 a.m. start time for the parade arrives, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernian's Parade Committee will approach the 69th's battalion commander, New York Army National Guard Major Sean Flynn and ask him the traditional question: "Is the 69th ready?"
At that point Flynn and his Soldiers will shout back "The 69th is always ready!" and step off on the parade route north up Fifth Avenue.
At the end of the parade route, the Soldiers take a special subway train south to the station at 28th Street and march back to their armory.
Once at the armory, the unit's officers line the front steps to honor their men as they pass by.
St. Patrick's Day is the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry's unit day and the history of the unit and the accomplishments of its Citizen Soldiers are celebrated, along with awards and honors for the battalion's Soldiers of the year.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is an honorary member of the regiment and has attended St. Patrick's Day events in the past, leading the Soldiers in singing "The Fighting 69th" a song commemorating the unit's Civil War history.